Strategic Deconditioning for Athletes

Strategic Deconditioning

This is a guest post by Travis Hansen

This particular training concept or technique was originally brought to light by Bryan Haycock. 1 I read a statement from Christian Thibadeau and I think he references its definition very well.

Paraphrasing of course, Strategic Deconditioning is the improvement of our muscle cells “trainability” or responsiveness to a growth stimulus through a brief layoff (9-14 days). In other words, it’s a planned de-load period where we dramatically reduce training volume and intensity.

The key to proper implementation of this concept for athletes is proper timing of the de-load period. Although, not entirely defined, several world class coaches and gyms have successfully implemented this approach with their athletes.

Anyone who has spent ample time lifting heavy, or been in the iron game can attest to an eventual state of “recovery debt” or physical decline that occurs when you are in the trenches grinding week in and week out. I know I have.  Whether through intuition or science, SD can effectively be adopted by athletes of all walks looking to get bigger and stronger and do so at an arguably optimal rate from what I’ve seen over the years.

Below are several reasons why it’s integral to long-term athletic development.

#1-Connective Tissue Depletion and long-term muscle growth

#2-Neurological and hormonal restoration/supercompensation

#3-Prehab/Rehab Phase

#4-Mental Break


Connective tissue which provides a protective barrier against tissue microtrauma will deplete during the layoff at a rate much faster than muscle loss. Why this is valuable is because muscle damage has been shown to be a necessary precursor for muscle tissue growth. 2 When we return to training after the brief layoff, our muscles will be primed and ready for growth since connective tissue is low.

The positive neural effects derived from SD are what I think really come into play with an athlete’s physical development rate because this sub-system of the body requires sufficient time to fully recover so we can repeat high-level performances across all training objectives pretty consistently.

Westside Barbell has a theory that after 3 weeks of high-intensity strength training, defensive inhibition of the nervous system emerges which will limit performance to an extent.  Inhibition or down-regulation is a natural survival mechanism that prevents exhaustion.

A researcher that I’ve been learning a lot about by the name of Tim Noakes has really explored the topic of neural fatigue and coined “The Central Governor Theory” which is the actual inhibition at work. 3 Fatigue occurs even in the presence of sufficient energy substrate availability, or metabolic waste removal, so there is definitely more to the story here.

I’ve also found some information that certain areas of the brain become fatigued along with other peripheral neural structures. A planned period of rest can help restore all aspects of the nervous system and help get us out of standard recovery debt which occurs and help prevent frustrating plateaus.

I track all data and performance measures with all of my athletes.  Some body types and athletes (i.e. beginners) can get away with a higher training frequency than others, but I believe that regardless of the individual, SD helps form healthy training habits and encourages the principle of recovery and regeneration in training, which is still definitely underrated in the athletic sector from what I’ve seen. Factor in all of the other competing demands (sport specialization, sprinting, change of direction work, plyometrics, conditioning, etc.) and this just adds to the potential state of overtraining.

Perceived exertion and personal feedback from training clients is also another useful assessment tool that I’ve used in determining if they are ready to deload, along with sympathetic (basedow) overtraining symptom observations. Often times ground contact time/sound becomes longer and louder during sprints and plyo’s, motivational state, fatigue, high blood pressure and resting heart rate, insomnia, and more start to become an issue. Enter a low to moderate intensity week and athletes naturally feel refreshed and ready to go.

Moreover, research supports a taper period for speed improvement and some of our data would support it as well. 4 The brief layoff can help balance out your testosterone to cortisol ratio’s. 5

I will clump the final two factors together into one.

A periodic low to moderate intensity week can be beneficial on a number of fronts.

First, the nature of the training will serve as aerobic which will help nutrient delivery and metabolic waste removal throughout our entire system to help us recover faster, and help the development of the anaerobic energy systems perform better as well.

Second, the decrease in physical and mental effort will tone down our sympathetic nervous system, which can enhance flexibility, mobility, breathing patterns, and tissue recovery rates.

Third, athletes are highly motivated so completely removing training just won’t work and they won’t be accomplishing anything by being lazy.

Last but not least, higher rep training has been associated with structural changes in properties of connective tissue which can help tendons and ligaments heal faster.

With all of the previous information comes true adaptation. Remember that improvement in training comes after the actual work we put in, not during it.

I’m going to share a chart that I read in awesome article from Tony Gentlicore. In this article, Tony thoroughly discusses the adaptation model founded by Hans Selye and its application in training. It may be redundant, but I feel it’s very relative to this conversation for sure.

Bottomline is that if we train too long and too hard then we will never fully adapt and perform optimally. There is a window of opportunity that we have to capitalize on if we want to be our best.

Basically, their needs to be the proper combination of training intensity, duration, and recovery relative to one another with our athletes program design, or else the window for full adaptation is lost. If any of these training variables are off in any direction progress will not be optimal.

Training Effect

(Photo courtesy of

Strategic Deconditioning is a very valuable technique that I think all coaches and athletes should employ at some point, if not already. A raw beginner is not going to be able to exhaust and tax their body’s like someone who has been in the iron game for awhile, but there may still be benefit to be had and you never know when that exact crossover point in development occurs.

I opt for 3 high intensity training weeks, followed by 1 low intensity training week with all of my athletes. This was first introduced to me by Charlie Weingroff years ago, and it has been working wonderfully. Jim Wendler, Eric Cressey, and several others also use the same intensity cycling approach from what I’ve seen, so I’m definitely sold on it.

Try it out and you won’t be discouraged!



2-Brentano, MA. A review on strength exercise-induced muscle damage: applications, adaptation-mechanisms and limitations. Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness: 1-10, 2011. 

3-Noakes, T. Neural control of force output during maximal and submaximal exercise. Sports Medicine 31: 637-650, 2001.

 4-Ross A, Leveritt M. Longterm metabolic and skeletal muscle adaptations to shortsprint training: implications for sprint training and tapering. Sports Medicine 31: 1063‐1082, 2001. 

 5-Urhausen, A. Diagnosis of overtraining: what tools do we have? Sports Medicine 32: 95-102, 2002.



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